- Mark "Rent Boy" Renton – the main character and antihero of the novel, Renton is the voice of reason among his group of friends, many of whom he cannot stand. He narrates his daily life – from supporting his heroin addiction with dole money and petty theft to interacting with the "normal world" – with a cynical approach. He is a cheeky-chappy capable of fitting in well enough to common society, is relatively good-looking and of above-average intelligence, but is misanthropic and depressed, and uses heroin both as a means to give purpose to his life, and for hedonistic purposes.
- Simon "Sick Boy" Williamson – A slick, promiscuous, amoral con artist, and Renton's best friend. He picks up women with ease and flaunts this quality in front of his friends. He is often on the lookout for potential scams, and despite his friendly, charming facade, he generally regards the women he seduces with little more than contempt. By the end of the novel, he has become a pimp of young girls. Essentially, a combination of Byronic hero and villain, he becomes even more amoral after the death of his daughter Dawn, who asphyxiates while her mother Lesley, and Sick Boy are on a heroin binge (Sick Boy outwardly denies parental responsibility until years after the fact, but it is heavily implied that he blames himself for Dawn's death). Sick Boy considers himself above everyone he interacts with in terms of restraint and moral fibre, despite being one of the most shallow and callous characters in the novel. When thinking to himself, he often imagines he is speaking with Sean Connery. While Begbie represents uncouth, unnecessary violence to the antihero of the novel, Sick Boy represents unrepentant, selfish expediency, the type of life that Renton would have if he had no conscience or moral restraints.
- Daniel "Spud" Murphy – Naive and childlike, Spud is both the whipping boy and only real source of comfort among Renton's circle of friends; they feel genuinely protective of him, even as they repeatedly mock and take advantage of him. Although very light-fingered, Spud is notably more gentle than his friends, shown, for instance, in his love for animals. Spud represents the product of a society indifferent to social ills; he uses heroin because it feels good and because the simple truth is that he would not be able to achieve anything even when sober. Spud is sent to Saughton prison for a section of the novel for petty theft.
- Francis "Franco" Begbie – A violent psychopath, Begbie bullies his "friends" into going along with whatever he says, assaulting and intimidating anyone who angers him. He expresses intense loyalty to his friends though he considers junkies to be the lowest form of life, despite being thoroughly addicted to alcohol, and, most notably, the adrenaline rush of violence. He is part of the YLT (Young Leith Team) street gang.
- Davie Mitchell – The "everyman" of the novel, Davie seems to be the most "normal" of the characters. Unlike the others, he is a university graduate and holds down a decent job, and represents, to a degree, the "straight life" most of the characters try to avoid. He is not immune to the dangers of his environment, however, and his life is thrown into chaos when he contracts HIV; his experiences with the disease form the basis of the story in the chapter "Bad Blood".
- Tommy Lawrence – A childhood friend of Renton's, Tommy does not use heroin and seems completely content to drink, use speed, play football, and listen to Iggy Pop. However, he is insecure and according to Renton, depends on others for validation; when his girlfriend dumps him, he numbs the depression by experimenting with heroin, reluctantly provided by Renton. His resulting addiction, downfall and death weigh on Renton's conscience (and, in part, provoke him to seriously attempt sobriety).
- Rab "Second Prize" McLaughlin – A friend of the main group, who is often inebriated due to drinking vast amounts of alcohol. His nickname comes from the fact that he gets into many fights whilst drunk, and always loses. He had a promising career as a pro footballer lined up, but ruined his chances when he became an alcoholic, and returned home in shame. His girlfriend Carol eventually breaks up with him due to his constant inebriated state. Second Prize often makes a fool of himself whilst drunk, so far as to put his drug addicted friends to shame and embarrassment. He goes to London in the conclusion of the book with the others, and spends the whole time intoxicated.
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